The Image of Theory or
A Foreclosure of Dialectical Reasoning?

By Nadine Lemmon

In the early ’80s, as theoretical models were being developed to address the perplexing issues raised by postmodern culture, Cindy Sherman’s work was adopted by theorists as the visual manifestation of theoretical tenets. However, if examined closely, these developing theories often served to foreclose dialectical reasoning and critical questioning of Sherman’s work instead of opening it up.

Although Sherman is often heralded as the quintessential ‘postmodern’ artist, the modernist tendencies of her work coupled with the critics’ inability to confront the ambiguity of her work, have rendered her ‘postmodern’ label problematic. Postmodern theory advocates a deconstruction of the power structures embedded in late capitalist society. But Sherman’s work functions seamlessly (and successfully) within the market strategies of the ’80s, typified by corporate control of museums and market control of galleries. Given that her work can be read as both a challenge to the art market and a creative, marketable product, the boundary between postmodern critique of the market and marketability has clearly been eroded. While critics applaud Sherman’s work for deconstructively denying the totality of a ‘real Cindy’, the meaning of her work is dependent upon the concept of the celebrity ‘Cindy’. Simultaneously, critics partially negate her ‘deconstruction’, mythologizing her as the autonomous ‘artist-genius’, harkening back to the modernist heroization of the creative individual. On one level, Sherman’s work appears to be subversively linked to ‘low’ art characterized by ‘b-grade’ film and photography, on another level, her work is fetishized as the modernist ideal of the ‘high' art object.

Most disturbingly, and I shall concentrate on this point, Sherman has been heralded as the subversive feminist that has boldly confronted issues concerning the female body. This is a very debatable position, a position not necessarily supported by Sherman’s images or interviews. What is very clear about this position is that it reflects critics’ desire for a visual example of their theories. The following excerpts from my 1993-1994 articles in Discourse, Perspektif, and San Francisco Camerawork1 trace the often precarious use of Sherman’s images to support postmodern theories of visuality.


The theory of the gaze is probably the most important issue relevant to Sherman’s work. It is definitely the most controversial. Critics have radically divergent opinions as to whether Sherman replicates or deconstructs oppressive ‘ways of seeing.’

Many critics feel that since Sherman poses and takes pictures of herself, she is in control of her image. According to Lisa Phillips in the Whitney catalogue:

because Sherman is both the subject and object of these fictions, actress and director, image and author, she takes control of the dynamic that regulates desire... she deflects the gaze of desire away from her body toward reproduction itself, forcing the viewers to recognize their own conditioning.2

And yet in the same catalogue, Peter Schjeldahl’s statements seem to contradict this thesis:

As a male, I also find these pictures sentimentally, charmingly, and sometimes pretty fiercely erotic: I'm in love again with every look at the insecure blonde in the nighttime city. I am responding to Sherman’s knack, shared with many movie actresses, of projecting feminine vulnerability, thereby triggering (masculine) urges to ravish and/or to protect. But it is the frame, with its exciting safety, that makes my response possible. 3

Schjeldahl’s comments, combining voyeurism with an undisguised (male) desire for dominance (‘insecure blonde’, ‘feminine vulnerability’, ‘ravish’, ‘protect’) lucidly show that Sherman might not have vdeflected’ the male gaze, but rather, provoked it.

Mira Schor, one of Sherman's few critics, takes the exact opposite position to Phillips in reference to the gaze. She states that Sherman’s

negative representations are disturbingly close to the way men have traditionally experienced or fantasized women. Sherman’s camera is male. Her images are successful partly because they do not threaten phallocracy, they reiterate and confirm it. 4

Irony and parody through ‘double mimesis’ seem to be the keys that distinguish Sherman’s work as critical. 5 How does one differentiate between ironic ‘double mimesis’ and replication of oppressiveness? In Sherman's work, the viewer is left to differentiate between the two. As Martha Rosler notes, irony is not accessible to everyone. “For those without a pre-existent critical relation to the material, the [mimesis] seems a slicked-up version of the original, a new commodity.”6 The contradictory responses to Sherman’s work throws into question the level of sophistication and the effectiveness of her critique.

Some critics have stretched the boundaries of theory in order to image Sherman as progressive. In reference to the Film Stills, Craig Owens acknowledges that the “spectator posited by this work is invariably male” but that Sherman’s work denies the male desire (“specifically, the masculine desire to fix the woman in a stable and stabilizing identity”) because Sherman does not portray one identity but many.7 However, I would argue that almost all of the identities that Sherman portrays fit into the already existing stereotypes of woman that serve to fulfill male desire. Hence, Sherman may be fulfilling the male’s desires for fixity itself.

Judith Williamson implies that the viewer is guilty for the negative readings of Sherman’s images. “In a way, ‘it’ [Sherman’s constructed image of ‘woman’] is innocent; you supply the femininity simply through social and cultural knowledge.” Referring to the reaction of a gallery visitor who criticized Sherman for presenting women as sex objects, Williamson concludes: “I was certain his anger must have come from a sense of his own involvement, the way those images speak not only to him but from him -- and he kept blaming Sherman herself for it, deflecting his sexism onto her, as if she really were a bit of a whore.”8 Though this is a tempting argument, it essentially alleviates the responsibility any producer has for any production of meaning. Williamson appears to believe that if an artist utilizes signs that are laden with constructed meanings in a public realm, it is the receiver that is primarily responsible for the production of meaning. Doesn’t Sherman control the viewing context, the targeted audience, and, most importantly, the juxtaposition and composition of signs? Are Sherman and her work ‘innocent’?

While discussing Sherman’s horizontal series (a controversial series inspired by porno magazines), Rosalind Krauss gyrates into a discussion of the fetishization of the vertical. She mentions the psychoanalytic use of vertical metaphors (the phallus, the fetish, the Lacanian mirror stage) as well as the art historical and visual dependence upon verticality (paintings hung on the vertical axis, and vision represented from a standing position). Krauss states that, like Jackson Pollock, Sherman disturbs this verticality by using a downward camera angle in her photographs. Yes, the angle makes one aware of the horizontal, but it also emphasizes the vertical (power/domination) position of the viewer in relation to the apparent weakness of the horizontally inclined woman (Sherman). It is revealing that Krauss barely mentions the porn inspiration for these images. Theory has enabled Krauss to agilely cover up the sticky issues raised by this series.

Michael Brenson concludes that Sherman’s “figures in familiar pornographic positions have a consciousness or emotional expressiveness that prevents them from being perceived as sexual objects.” 9 Yet, how is this “consciousness or emotional expressiveness” perceived? Clearly, the opposite conclusion could be derived from the symbolic structure of the woman’s gestures and facial expressions, and through the visual technique used in the image. Therefore, this perception must be grounded in the viewer’s cognitive position. The fact that these images are made by a woman (who has been critically linked to deconstruction) and that the images are exhibited in an art world context (historically linked with progressiveness), the viewer can easily project his/her own desires for the subversion of the gaze and the imaging of ‘woman as sex object.’

After the small bout of negative criticism on the ‘horizontals,’ Sherman made a shift in her work towards the grotesque. She comments that her next series, the ‘fairy tale’ images, shows “just how wrong those people really were.” 10 Indeed, the women in the fairy tale and fashion series no longer show the passive/vulnerable woman. However, she is replaced by the demon, the witch, and the evil castrating woman -- that other stereotyped (‘male’) ‘way of seeing’ women. To Mulvey, the hideousness of the fairy tale series “seems to personify the stuff of the unconscious itself.”11 But whose unconscious? The male’s unconscious who, according to psychoanalytic theories, ultimately fears castration by the female? Jamey Gambrell feels that Sherman “seems to be venturing into an imaginative territory beyond the confines of received ideas.” 12 However, Sherman’s women are much closer to an archetypal imaging of the castrating women than an imaging of the woman that exists beyond the realm of “received ideas.”

In reference to Sherman’s 1985 & 1986 objects series which utilize the signs of a de-idealized detritus of femininity (used cosmetics, torn clothing, deformed bodyparts, blood, and vomit), Norman Bryson tries to argue that Sherman is reaching towards a body that exists outside of discourse, a body in the realm of the (Lacanian) Real. Since the Real, by definition, cannot be represented, it must be accessed through other means -- like the abject, the horror-object, the grotesque. Bryson feels that postmodernism's key practitioners -- Sherman, David Lynch, and Joel-Peter Witkin [!?!] -- all attempt to approach this affect of the Real. However, I would argue that these three aestheticize and, consequently, distance the Real, rather than encounter it. For proximity to the Real, I would suggest that Bryson sit through a performance by the screaming Diamanda Galas, or pour through David Wojnarowicz’s torrent of words, or stare at the electronic “noise” that silently engulfed TV screens as “smart bombs” hit their “targets” -- truly a horror that resists representation. Somewhere between Galas, Wojnarowicz, and Schwarzkopf one can imagine that the Real exists...but in a photograph of Cindy with a mask on?

Michael Newman argues that in this series the mimesis “appears to break down or implode, and the conditions and limits of mimetic representation are momentarily exposed.” 13 This concept seems exaggerated given that Sherman’s images are still allegorically laden with the mimetic signifiers of woman, and the linguistic structures of the photograph have not been altered.

Newman’s most interesting point (also made by Mulvey) is the correlation between these images and Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject in Powers of Horror. Simplified, the abject is that which represents a threat to the subject's constitution in a pre-conceived (and often confining) symbolic realm; that which threatens the concept of a “clean and proper” body. “It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules.” 14 Kristeva reads the abject politically as the initial step in the rejection of the symbolic order and the reconstitution of the subject. By connecting Sherman to Kristeva, Newman implies that Sherman’s series could be read as the first step towards political empowerment; the first step towards constituting the self apart from the confining language of femininity. However, Sherman’s explanation of her transition to grotesque images is very disillusioning: “In a way, I was freed up because I just wanted to be shocking.” 15

As Peter Burger notes, “nothing loses its effectiveness more quickly than shock.” The repetitive use of shock as a strategy ultimately leads to “expected” or “institutionalized” shock. 16 Sherman’s potentially fruitful exploration of the issues of identity and the abject is at risk of being sacrificed at this altar of shock. Sherman’s work appears to be reduced to a desire to catch the critics off guard. She states: “The criticism, even if it’s really good criticism, makes me realize, 'well, if that’s the way they all think it’s going, then I’m going to take it this way.'” 17

Amidst this torpor of critical contradictions, Sherman remains silent. Critics protect her unwillingness to discuss the issues raised by her work, supplanting her responsibility for the production of meaning with that pseudo-romantic quality, 'intuitiveness.' The result is a mystification of silence as social power. Viewers project their desires onto the images, transforming Sherman into whoever they want her to be.

Krauss states: “I would like to think of Sherman in dialogue with...I imagine her reflecting on....” Clearly, these comments are about Krauss’ desire. Krauss states that instead of speaking, Sherman has “constructed” the interpretive frames in which she is producing her work. For Krauss, Sherman situates herself in the “discursive horizon” that is structured by other works, by critical interpretations, and by Sherman’s “friends.” I would argue that association with something does not imply a discursive relationship with it. Krauss does not consider the fact that the discursive horizon is also structured by the space of reception -- in Sherman’s case, an aestheticized, high-culture space (such as Rizzoli and Metro Pictures) that has, in effect, silenced the work.

Sherman is inextricably situated in a history of women’s silence--a silence that has denied women power. How can one distinguish between Sherman’s silence as political and Sherman’s silence as replicating this history of repression? Critics’ readings of Sherman’s silence as political is based on the assumption that Sherman is fully conscious of women’s historical silence, an assumption that is not substantiated by her interviews or, I would argue, her work.

In conclusion, postmodern theory has been crucial to problematizing the role of art, of aesthetics, of politics, and of the modernist hangover of the autonomous artist. These ground-breaking (and challenging) theories that have been essential to understanding and contending with late capitalist society are hinted at by the signs in Sherman’s work: identity formation, the masquerade, the gaze, mass culture, gender and sexual transgressions, etc. However, the signs (or cliches) in Sherman’s work are so vaguely grounded that they have become floating signifiers of meaning that can be molded to the desire of the viewer, and need not necessarily challenge the viewer’s ideological or political point of view. Plagued by an intense desire to advance a politics of visuality, critics tend to praise (instead of questioning) Sherman’s politics. Postmodern theory, still in its nascent stages and still unable to obtain a critical distance to analyze its own contradictions, has come dangerously close to foreclosing extended dialectic reasoning and replacing it with the totality of theory. The Sherman Phenomena is an alarming symbol of our current cultural and critical situation.